The Sceptical Chymist | From crazy chemists to engaged learners through education

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Editor’s note: We published a series of ‘beyond the bench’ Commentary articles in our September 2011 issue to celebrate the International Year of Chemistry. These are free just for the rest of September, so get them while you can! We recently received some correspondence from John Spevacek on the chemistry education article written by David Smith from York – and so we are publishing it here, with a reply from Smith. We encourage you to add your own thoughts in the comments section here on the blog.

To the Editors:

Professor Smith argues in his September commentary (“From Crazy Chemist to Engaged Learners through Education”, Nature Chem. 3, 681–684, (2011)) that the retention of facts as a core part of chemical education needs to be questioned since so much information is readily available via electronic means.

I would emphatically argue against this on three points.

First, while an ever increasing amount information is available on the internet, access to much of that information, particularly chemical information, is difficult to access as it is behind pay-per-view or subscription firewalls. I have found that this issue is poorly appreciated by those in academia who have good access to the literature via their institutions. Chemists working in industrial settings, and particularly those employed at medium or small-sized companies do not have such broad access. Scanning the abstract of an article of interest more often than not does not provide appropriate assurance that paying $35 for access to the article will actually provide the needed information. The risk to potentially access the information is often not taken since this game may need to be played multiple times, and so the facts are not found. More free access and lower access costs are certainly foreseeable in the future, but free access to all information is not.

Second, information needs context, a point that ironically was argued by Prof. Smith himself. However, the context I speak of is based on knowledge of the fundamentals, not the social situation in which a concept can be used (such as in the examples of curries provided by the author). Without that knowledge, all inputs must be considered as truthful and consistent with existing knowledge and no judgment can be made regarding the validity of any new inputs. Contrast this with someone who has retained a base foundation of facts. Such a person, in reading an article on Wikipedia or a research article claiming the development of a new breakthrough, is capable of judgments as to whether or not the claims are true and consistent with other findings, and is further capable of generating additional ideas to further test the claims.

Third, knowledge of information is needed to be conversant in chemistry, whether one is in a classroom, meeting with their superiors or outside clients. To be able to say “I can look that up” is to state “I am no better than anyone else”. As an extreme example, I could state that I am fluent in reading Swahili because I can look every word up in an English-Swahili dictionary. (I feel free to make that claim as Professor Smith does nothing to delineate how many fewer facts we should impose on students, only that it should be less.)

In all seriousness, I realize that the scale of “what to look up” versus “what to know” is a slippery slope even today (just poll your colleagues as to how much of the periodic table they have memorized), and that every older generation is appalled by the lack of (basic!) facts taught to the newer generation, but this has occurred in the past as a result of the ever expanding base of knowledge, not because of technological improvements in the access to information. To argue that technology should be used to accelerate that trend clearly takes us into new territory that has not be explored before. While the idea of trying the experiment is worthwhile in principle, keep in mind that we have only one chance to educate students – if the experiment fails, we cannot go back to correct the error.

In summary, the ability to quickly obtain chemical information will increase in the future, but a solid base of facts needs to be known by the individuals accessing it in order to be able to be comfortable with it, to make proper use of the data and to be conversant with it, and if we error, it should be on the side of requiring students to learn too many facts, not too few.

John Spevacek, Ph. D.

Aspen Research Corporation

David Smith replies:

I thank John Spevacek for his comments on my article – only by robustly debating the merits of different approaches can we reinviogorate the way our students are taught. I would, however, like to point out that although my article argues for a change of emphasis in chemical education, it certainly does not, as John suggests, propose the complete removal of facts from the curriculum. Indeed, I would like to quote just one of my key sentences for clarity: ‘Of course a foundation of sound knowledge is crucial, but the bigger challenges facing the modern chemist are to appreciate the true value of the available information, develop the skils to interpret it sensibly and the capabaility to make creative connections…’ [emphasis added].

Students certainly do, as stated above, require a sound foundation of knowledge in order to progress. My article really challenges whether students really need to memorise/know the same amount of detail that they once did. For example, is it necessary for undergraduates to commit to memory each and every variant of a carbonyl condensation reaction, along with the name of its discoverer, as I once did – or is it more important that they have an understanding of the general mechanism of this class of reaction, the capacity to work out the details from its fundamental first principles, and an ability to recognise this type of reaction and its significance, when shown it in a new real-world context? I would still argue that we are wasting our students’ cognitive capacity if we make them memorise too much, and that combining core knowledge with contextual problem solving skills is the only way for them to develop the ability to interpret the vast range of chemistry with which they can be faced.

The point about the accessibility of information is certainly well made. I would hold that for many school and many undergraduate classes, the information available online is rich and diverse in nature, and much of it is high quality. However, certainly at research level, much information is protected by publishers and inaccessible to non-subscribers. Of course this is an issue, not only in an industrial setting, but in the developing world and educational settings outside universities. This is a problem which many initiatives in open access publishing hope to address. In an ideal world, there would be equality of access to all information – there is no doubt that this would facilitate education, and the ability of all to gain access to the cutting-edge of scientific progress.

Finally, in order to emphasise the importance of learning in context – I would like to take John’s example of learning Swahili. It would be possible to learn all the grammar, all the vocabulary, and have a full understanding of the rules of the language, all on paper. However, the best way to learn a language is to pick up some basics (not try to learn the whole language) and then immerse yourself in the country – go out there, make mistakes, and learn from them. Only by living in a country do you become a true expert – you need to hear the language spoken in context, read it from a real newspaper, have a slang conversation with a local friend, or see how the language connects with the local food, culture and history. Chemical knowledge is just like learning a language – only by using your fundamental knowledge to solve problems in a relevant context, immersing yourself in the chemistry of the real world, can you truly learn the skills required to become an ‘expert’. In my opinion, it is these subject-specific skills in applying knowledge which are the most valuable aspects of a modern education and will create the next generation of chemical experts.

Prof. David Smith

The University of York

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